Acts 10:24 - 38
KJV - 24 And the morrow after they entered into Caesarea. And Cornelius waited for them, and he had called together his kinsmen and near friends. 25 And as Peter was coming in, Cornelius met him, and fell down at his feet, and worshipped him.
If the rabbinic literature that survived the destruction of the 2nd Temple is any indication of the pattern of religious life in 1st century Isra'el, then the Judaisms of Peter’s day held to the common belief that Jewish Isra'el held an exclusive place among the righteous peoples of the earth. The poison of Ethnocentric Jewish Exclusivism that permeated the first century Jewish society erected a wall of separation between your average Jew and your average Gentile (read Eph 2:14 with this view in mind). Because of this social view, many religious Jews sought to keep a measured distance away from most Gentiles, believing the average Gentile to be intrinsically “unclean,” capable of transmitting ritual impurity to Jews, and or leading Jews away into idolatry. A careful reading of the Greek of Acts 10 and Peter’s conversation with God will show that this simple fisherman was also blinded by the prevailing Jewish traditions and bylaws that sought to avoid Gentiles at all costs. It would take the Spirit of God to open Peter’s eyes to the truth that, in Yeshua (Jesus), Gentiles too can be cleansed by the power of the Messiah’s blood (Acts 10:34, 35, 43). At face value, the verse indeed seems to have Peter affirming a fact that is “well known” even among the Gentiles, that it is unlawful for Jews to associate with or visit anyone of another nation (i.e., the Gentiles). But if this is true, by whose authority could Peter make such a statement? God? The Jews? Does the Bible forbid Jews from associating with Gentiles? Let’s dig a bit deeper to find out. In Acts 10:28, the Greek word for "unlawful" is athemitos ἀθέμιτος, and it is found in only two places in the Apostolic Scriptures (Acts 10:28 and 1 Peter 4:3). It is a composite of two Greek words: the word tithemi τίθημι meaning “to set, put, place, set forth, establish,” and the article “a,” rendering the word tithemi into its negative value (Thayer's and Smith's Bible Dictionary). Thus athemitos does convey the general notion of “unlawful,” but context must determine "whose law" is lending the authority. The adjective athemitos ἀθέμιτος refers to that which, although not written down, is simply socially unacceptable, viz, taboo, but certainly not forbidden by Mosaic Law. Most translations use "unlawful" or something similar, implying God's Law, but this implication would be incorrect. In my understanding of this passage, David Stern’s Complete Jewish Bible is a better translation of this verse: "He said to them, "You are well aware that for a man who is a Jew to have close association with someone who belongs to another people, or to come and visit him, is something that just isn't done. But God has shown me not to call any person common or unclean."" I don't think “unlawful” is the best translation because God’s Law does NOT forbid Jew to Gentile association. It is always best to go back to the original context and social setting of a passage to further investigate the strengths and weaknesses of any given translation. Conclusions: The Torah (Law) of Moses never prohibits Jews from “associating with” or "visiting anyone of another nation.” This statement of Peter's reflects the “ethnocentric Jewish exclusivism” baggage that the Torah communities of his day had engineered, baggage not uncommon among people groups who are marginalized. In other words, Peter was just regurgitating the standard mantra of his day. This did not excuse his error, which is why God went through all the trouble to send him the vision in the first place. In the end, the message of the Acts 10 vision is crystal clear: Gentiles in Yeshua are not intrinsically unclean, like the 1st century Judaisms were professing. They, like all men, have been created in God’s image, and as such, can be viewed as defiled by the stain of sin, in need of cleansing. Peter needed to understand that non-Jews were not intrinsically unclean simply because they were Gentiles.